Employee ‘odor policy’ must pass the smell test

Issue: Can you tell an employee to take a bath?

Risk: You risk a discrimination claim because, unlike other grooming-policy issues, odor lies in the eye (or nose) of the beholder.

Action: Be leery of specific anti-odor references in your grooming policy. Discuss the problem openly and honestly with the employee.

What if employees started complaining to you about a co-worker's body odor? What should you do?

Faced with this situation, the Mufreesboro, Tenn., city counsel instructed the city's HR department to add an "odor" section to its existing employee grooming policy.

The city's old rules required only that employees dress professionally. The new policy added this: "No employee shall have an odor generally offensive to others when reporting to work. An offensive body odor may result from a lack of good hygiene, from an excessive application of a fragrant after-shave or cologne or from other causes."

The city received some national attention for creating the policy, which is still on the books. So should you create such a policy?

Our advice: Don't rush to add anti-odor references to your grooming policy.

Unlike a typical dress-code issue, such as facial hair or inappropriate clothing, making your case against odor will prove a lot tougher. What's offensive to one person may be acceptable to another.

Instead of drafting an odor policy, include a grooming policy that sets general standards for appropriate appearance and hygiene. If a policy violation is related to an employee's odor, discuss the problem openly and honestly with the employee in a private setting.